Kid gloves come off at meeting of attorney general candidates
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - To hear incumbent Attorney General Darrell McGraw tell it, his Republican opponent is a front man for the companies McGraw's office prides itself for suing.
To challenger Patrick Morrisey, Democrat McGraw is running campaigns using money that belongs to taxpayers.
"What we have here today is a front man for an outfit that is supported by all the people that we resist who want to kill consumer protection in West Virginia," McGraw said.
McGraw said his office has brought in more than $2 billion from consumer protection actions since he was first elected in 1992.
Morrisey said McGraw has used too much of that money for his own devices, namely advertisements that aid McGraw's re-election efforts.
Morrisey said a portion of McGraw's settlement money is "always reserved for the private piggybank of the office of the attorney general."
"I think that's wrong, and I don't think it's coincidental when election-year spending may ultimately exceed non-election-year spending in the office of attorney general by 10 times the amount," Morrisey said. "That's not right."
Morrisey also said he would put an end to "trinkets" bearing the attorney general's name.
McGraw said his lawsuits against companies have put him at odds with businesses that are backing a "lobbyist enterprise," including the Institute for Legal Reform, an industry-backed group that Morrisey cited during the interview.
"What this lobbyist enterprise wants to do is to kill consumer protection in West Virginia - to kill consumer protection," McGraw said. "We have a good consumer protection law, and these people want to kill it."
McGraw also alluded to Morrisey's legal experience in West Virginia.
Morrisey, a former congressional staffer turned D.C. lobbyist who lives in the Eastern Panhandle, was not licensed to practice law in West Virginia until several days before he filed to run for attorney general this year. In 2000, he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey.
"The problem we've got is this man knows nothing about West Virginia law or how West Virginia law operates," McGraw said.
Morrisey said he's practiced law for two decades and has experience with important state and federal issues like Medicaid.
McGraw's office plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars this year advertising its services to consumers and much, if not all, of that advertising will bear McGraw's name. A large portion of the money will come from a national mortgage settlement that attorneys general from across the country entered into earlier this year.
McGraw said if cases are settled, the services the settlements offer West Virginians have to be advertised. He said he believes a lawyer's name needs to be on ads that advertise such legal services.
"The election and the settlement coincide - and guess what?" McGraw said. "I'm glad."
Morrisey wanted McGraw to elaborate on why he was glad.
"Because I do want to point out that if any one point or any one purpose of advertising is political in nature, that can get people in a lot of trouble," Morrisey said.
McGraw turned philosophical.
"For 2,500 years, we've been arguing about what's 'political,' " McGraw said. "I think it was Plato - wasn't it? - that said 'political' depends on where you stand while you're looking at it."
He said, moments later, "So it coincides and all the sudden it's a federal case?"
Morrisey said he has to raise money just to compete with spending by McGraw's office.
"We're trying to raise the money because, to be honest, we have to compete with this taxpayer-financed machine," Morrisey said. "He had $6.1 million of the mortgage settlement, and we're looking at such a significant percentage being spent on blatantly political activities, so we have to raise as much money to make sure that my name, I.D. and our message gets out."
"Right there - stop it!" McGraw said. "Stop it! Right there you had an assertion -"
Morrisey, "What's false about it?"
McGraw continued, "- about 'taxpayer-paid machine' - there's no such thing, OK? But it goes on, it just goes on, running on and on and on and on with no basis for anything . . ."
The pair shook hands at the beginning of the meeting but not at the end, though Morrisey held out his hand as McGraw was turning to leave.
Morrisey has repeatedly challenged McGraw to a series of public debates ahead of the Nov. 6 election. McGraw said Wednesday, "I don't get into debates about how to enforce the law."